Five years ago, I began researching a disease that I’d never even heard of before: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis. Imagine my surprise when I found out that it was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, following on the heels of heart disease, cancer, and stroke. In the few short years since then, COPD has bypassed stroke to become the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and fifth most prevalent disease in the Veteran population, affecting approximately 15 percent of VA health care users.
For a disease of such considerable impact, relatively little is known about COPD. Our hope, as VA researchers, is that by increasing awareness of this devastating disease, greater resources may be made available to help scientists develop new therapies to treat it.
Why is COPD so devastating? It is a progressive lung disease that can cause shortness of breath, coughing, mucus production, wheezing, and other symptoms. Cigarette smoking is the primary risk factor for COPD, but long-term exposure to other irritants may also contribute. In addition to shortness of breath, COPD patients commonly suffer from anxiety and depression, making this disease a serious medical, financial, and emotional burden on both patients and their families. Currently, there are no treatments available to halt the progression of COPD.
Here at the VA Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we’re looking at the immune system’s role in the COPD process and working to better understand the mechanisms that lead to COPD. In particular, we are interested in why some smokers develop COPD and others do not. In order to directly study the cells involved in the disease process, we collect excess human lung tissue that has been removed for medical reasons. All tissues come from consented patients.
One of the most gratifying aspects of being a VA researcher is working with such a highly altruistic group of patient participants. I am always heartened by the willingness of Veterans to participate in studies such as ours. In order to learn as much as possible from each tissue sample, we have developed techniques to study the function of many different types of cells. For example, we can isolate individual cell populations from the lung tissue and determine what molecules they produce and how these molecules might alter the normal functions of the lung. In this way, we hope to identify differences in cell behavior between patients without and with COPD. We believe our work has the potential to identify potential targets for new therapies to treat COPD disease progression.
I consider myself highly fortunate to be working at the VA, where COPD prevention and treatment are integral to VA’s mission of providing high quality care. And I feel honored to have recently received a presidential award for conducting research that will be used every day to help our nation’s Veterans.
Christine M. Freeman, Ph.D., is a Research Biologist at the VA Medical Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan and a Research Investigator in Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Health System. She is one of four VA researchers who this fall received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the government’s highest honor for researchers in the early stages of their career.